Sunday, June 24, 2007

Focused on a single issue for a change

-Probably won't have time on Monday to do a proper post, so (here's hoping) I'll do a long-ish, single-issue post on Sunday night instead.

Heidi McDonald (er, MacDonald) took up an issue I broached on Thursday: people are now browsing Marvel/DC solicitations for the express purpose of looking for offensive images of women. Now, this is not to say that there are still some folks who are offended by covers in the course of their typical monthly solicitation scanning. These people are probably still the majority, I would guess. But one would be hard pressed to convincingly argue that the act of looking at solicitations hasn't changed in the last two months, at least for those of us who care about these issues.

McDonald is troubled by this, in the sense that she seems to be worried that feminist bloggers aren't picking their battles wisely. To wit: the Mary Jane Marvel Zombies cover is not worthy of complaint, especially since this dilutes complaints about more serious offenses (like the Heroes For Hire cover). I agree with McDonald's take on the covers in question (Steven Grant had some especially compelling thoughts on the subject), but I'm not comfortable telling people what should offend them. Some blogging personalities seem to have been genuinely shocked and revolted by the zombie cover; who am I to tell them they're wrong and should shut up? (I mean, I'm perfectly willing to do so in other cases, but I find the issue of sexism/misogyny in comics somewhat more important than "Iron Man is a bigger nazi than fucking George Bush, maaaan" or "Aquaman is the linchpin of western civilization" or similar bullshit.)

Unfortunately, other cases aren't so cut and dried. One can see ulterior motives creeping into this discourse. The reaction to the covers surrounding the Arrow/Canary wedding is a good example--is there anything particularly offensive about any of these covers? You might find the marriage objectionable, even sexist or (stretching credulity a bit here) misogynistic, but that's a complaint about the writing, not the cover art. In other cases, I've seen people try to tie the debate over a particular cover to Marvel vs. DC cheerleading or anti-Marvel/DC polemic. There's probably a place for discussion of these issues in the larger debate, but we should be wary of people whose history suggests ax-grinding over considered debate.

So, because nobody demanded it, I've got a few suggestions for those of us who are concerned about the portrayal of women in Marvel/DC comics, yet equally concerned that the debate is getting unfocused, too shrill, or just somehow vaguely off:

1. Don't treat those who disagree like children, no matter how much they might deserve it. I like a good put-down war as much as the next guy (yes, yes, probably more so), but I like my opponents to be fully-functioning adults. There's no sport in matching wits with your average Blogorama troll (though there is some fun in mocking them from afar, say at your own blog). Be polite, keep the high ground, don't make blanket generalizations that you can't support (again, unless you're doing it at your own blog).

1a. Maybe you should give the bingo thing a rest. Yes, we might find it funny, but I think it alienates people who might otherwise be sympathetic to complaints about sexism/misogyny. The post which explained the whole bingo concept (which I can't find right now) does a fairly good job in explaining everything, but I still think this is a fairly exclusionary rhetorical device--you're for us or against us! You get it or you don't! In the present landscape, I don't think this is a useful way to frame the argument. People are much more willing to consider your perspective if they think you're inviting them to do so, rather than telling them they're too stupid to understand.

2. Don't be afraid to moderate comments. This is a tricky one--nobody wants to look like a censor. But some people aren't interested in discussing issues in good faith; they're either intellectually incapable (hopefully due to youth) or just not interested in real debate. I wish the powers that be at Blogorama were a little quicker in deleting these sorts of comments, though I kind of understand why they aren't. For the rest of us, especially those whose blogs end up being the epicenter of a particular controversy: if the commenter feels slighted or oppressed, you might remind him or her that blogs are free. And if you have something interesting to say (or even if you don't, sometimes), people will eventually notice you.

2a. Don't feed trolls. I also wish that people who know better would just ignore the type of comment described above, especially those left on Blogorama. It's good to engage with people who have opposing viewpoints, but only if they're legitimately interested in honest intellectual debate. Arguing with trolls quickly turns into a screaming match. This might be somewhat amusing when discussing Civil War or something else that doesn't fucking matter--hell, I think there's some value to trolling in such a situation. But this is actually somewhat serious shit. Pick your words carefully; don't let something that matters to you devolve into a cable news talk show.

3. You don't have to address/link to every cover controversy. This obviously doesn't apply to When Fangirls Attack, whose raison d'etre is the accumulation of such links. But for the rest of us: if you think the outrage of the week is unjustified, you don't have to condemn it. If you think the cover is basically kosher, you can say so. Or you can choose to just say nothing. Nobody's going to deduct feminist street cred points for failing to condemn every subject of weekly outrage. I see a lot of posts which begin "I wasn't going to comment on this, but...." Consider sticking with your initial impulse.

4. Talk about things other than covers. When I asked a few months ago whether writing or art was more sexist/misogynist, everyone who commented said the art. I've always felt differently--the worst offenses originate in the writing, not the art. Women in Refrigerators--that's a writing problem, isn't it? The only recent example of a writing controversy (that I can remember) is the Daredevil's-wife-in-peril thing. And that hasn't even come out yet! Also, I don't see a lot of people complaining about the interior art in comics. There are a few reasons for that, I'm guessing: covers are the most prominent pieces of art in comics; you don't have to break out the scanner to talk about covers; people don't buy comics with interior art which offends them. Whatever the reason, it might help to talk about this stuff a little. If you don't want to spend money on an offensive comic, just illegally download it. Nobody will notice, and I guarantee the majority of bloggers are reading some sort of illegal/quasi-legal scans on a regular basis.

Just to be fair, I'll try to get a few words of wisdom for the "other side" up later this week. Assuming those virgin fanboy troglodytes can comprehend what I'm saying. BINGO!

-SPECIAL BONUS CONTENT: A NORMAL PERSON'S VIEW (THEY DON'T GET MARVEL ZOMBIES, STRANGELY ENOUGH)

I selected a few of the recent controversial covers (including one which has more to do with race than gender) and showed them to my wife. She has no interest in superhero comics, but knows a little about the genre because (a) she's seen a few of the recent Marvel/DC movies, and (b) she's married to me. She has read comics in the past--most recently Stagger Lee--and is a big Edward Gorey fan. Also, she's much smarter than 90% of comics bloggers and 99% of those who leave comments on comics blogs yet don't actually have blogs themselves. Also also, she knows a thing or two about gender studies. Here's what she had to say, with links to the images I showed her. My real-time comments in red:

Power Girl and Black Canary by Michael Turner: [Laugher] It seems like the boobs are just there for the sake of having them there. It doesn't even look even remotely anatomically correct, and the pose just seems to be...all she's doing is accentuating the boobs, she doesn't seem to have any purpose in standing like that. It's just a bizarre picture again because it's not even attractive-looking boobs, it's just huge enormous boobs for the sake of having boobs.

Would you call this misogynistic or sexist? Oh, well I mean it's obviously just objectifying women. What's interesting about the picture is that her boobs are about twice as big as her head, so it's kind of a woman who's all boob, essentially.

Mary Jane washing clothes statue: [Laughter] So barefoot in the kitchen, washing Spider-Man's....[I point out that her feet are not visible in this particular picture, but that she is in fact shoeless.] Well, that's the joke that always goes along with it. You can actually see her thong hanging out in the back. It's kind of weird cause her pose, and the way she's looking over her shoulder, it almost looks like pinup girls from the 40s, real cheesecake. You're not actually seeing a whole lot of flesh, at least in this shot. It's more kind of a real cheesy cheesecake kind of thing, like a 50s pinup girl.

Sexist, misogynistic, or just stupid? It bothers me. [Laughter] I'm just trying to figure out what the statement is. Mary Jane, I guess she's not pregnant. That's the other stereotype, right? What's the statement, that all Mary Jane has to do is washing Spider-Man's costume for him? It's really more just kind of stupid cheesecake stuff, although the whole element with her washing his costume is pretty...I don't know, it seems to have a sexist edge to it. Kind of stupid and cheesecake-y, at least to me.

Heroes For Hire Tentacle Rape: [Laughter] They're bound at the top? Yeah, there's kind of obviously a sadomasochist element to this. The women are bound, and being beaten with what looks like tentacles. Just an example of that whole tentacle...tradition, in Japan, but I know this is not Japanese. There's kind of also a homoerotic element, you see all this women with thrusting bosoms all up against each other. Who's arm is that up there? One of the male characters. Ah, so the male characters are there too. There's another female character, poking her boobs out on the side there. Yeah, it's...disturbing...I'm trying to take it all in. Women in peril, but the threat is clearly kind of sexual here, which is kind of disturbing. And the fact that I know a little about the tentacle thing makes it more disturbing, that there's some kind of tentacle rape.

What would you think if you didn't know about tentacle rape? I probably wouldn't...well, it's pretty clear there might be some kind of sexual peril here. The woman's [Misty Knight's] lower area is pretty exposed, due to her costume, but she's also been kind of ripped up there.

Bonus question: which ethnicity would you guess Misty Knight is? Um, maybe Latina...well, wait, she's got...I don't know, maybe Black, cause they're implying she has curly hair up there.

Falcon on Fire: [Laughter] So the idea is...which one is Captain America? [I explain that he's not on the cover, but a lot of his former sidekicks are.] It kind of looks, even though it's the Falcon character who's burning, it pretty much looks like a flag-burning. I'm not really sure what the reference there is. [I point out that the Falcon is Black.] Oh. Hmm. Yeah, that makes it more disturbing. I'm not really sure what to make of this one. Has there been meaning attributed to the fact that he's Black and burning in front of an American flag? It's been argued that it's implying lynching. Yeah, I didn't necessarily pick up on that, but maybe that's because I didn't read that he was supposed to be Black. But if you knew who the character was, even if it was representing that, it's a little bit more...The fact that it's done against the American flag background, it might be kind of undercutting that, it might be a more interesting statement.

[Later, with the tape recorder off, I tell my wife that Ed Brubaker argues that burning does not suggest "racial insensitivity," but a noose and/or burning cross would. She reminds me that burning at the stake was not an uncommon form of death for victims of lynching in the 19th century. It's true, I'm afraid.]

Zombie Mary Jane: [I explain the concept of Marvel Zombies] Well, this is obviously mixing the themes of sex and death together, which is a very common trope. What's kind of interesting here is that the only part of Mary Jane that isn't decaying or disgusting are her boobs. [Laughter] Boobs are the only thing that isn't rotting or decaying, and that's because they're trying to draw the male viewership that doesn't really want to see rotting Mary Jane boobs. Yeah, and what's also kind of disturbing too is that you kind of see the sexualization of young teenage girls here, because she's carrying kind of a schoolbook on her hip, like she's kind of a high school girl.

[I explain that it's an homage to the teenage girl-targeted Mary Jane comic, which my wife actually read, mostly to humor me, I think. I swear I wasn't serious about her reading it, but she called my bluff and claims that she actually liked it.] It kind of reminds me of...complaints these days about what young women are wearing, what's become de rigeur for young women's fashion--tight fitting sleeveless tops, low rise jeans....

Sexist, misogynistic, offensive in some other way, or just stupid? It's pretty stupid--it's Mary Jane as a zombie. The whole zombie alternate universe or whatever sounds pretty dumb. The image is disturbing to me, sexist I think. Sexualizing young women in a way that's pretty disturbing, especially when you mix that sexualization with decaying corpse, it's even more disturbing to me, I guess.

[This reaction wasn't exactly what I expected--she seemed more fixated on Mary Jane as an adolescent, rather than Mary Jane as a zombie. So I show her the original cover which inspired the Zombies homage.] This looks like a much younger Mary Jane, actually. Of the two, which do you find more offensive? Oh, probably the zombie one. This one is more...cute looking. The other one looks more seductive. I don't think it's exactly the same pose. The original one is done in such a cutesy style. This one looks more like, well, zombie woman, but also more mature woman. [The original] strikes me as less sexual, she's kind of clearly younger looking, kind of cute, young Mary Jane. I don't know. I don't know if that makes it more disturbing, wearing these tight little clothes. But that's kind of become de rigeur for young women to wear, stuff like that, so.... Maybe the sexualization of young women has just become built into the fashion industry, it's become kind of a fact of life. There's something kind of sleazy about [the zombie cover]. More suggestive looking.

[I then show her the covers to the original Marvel Zombies series.] Looks pretty dumb. When is this from? Do people actually read this stuff? It was a big hit. You didn't read it, did you? No. Doesn't this defeat the point of having superheroes, if they're all zombies? [Looking at cover to issue 3, the McFarlane Wolverine vs. Hulk homage:] Why is his eyeball coming off? So Hulk's got a bunch of eyes in his mouth, and Woverine's got a bunch of eyes in his mouth? Like they've been eating people's eyes or something? Yeah. Hmm. [Laughter.] Doesn't really interest me. Are you offended more by the violence or... I just think it's more stupid than anything. I'm not especially offended by the violence. With zombies, it's hard to be offended by violence. I think you can actually do a lot more than you could with living, human characters. Given all that, is the Mary Jane cover appropriate in that context? Or does this one seem a little different than the other ones? Huh. Yeah, because the others are all action-related. This one is weird to me, cause it doesn't even look like the other ones. The others are all zombies torn apart; this one is stranger, cause there isn't a whole lot of overt violence going on in it.

Green Arrow and Black Canary wedding cake: So they're finally tying the knot? [This is intended as a joke at my expense, I think--the implication being that normal people don't care about superheroes getting married.] That's Black Canary? She wears a white costume from time to time? Just for her wedding, I guess. She typically wears this black leather and fishnet ensemble. The joke being here that she's the man, carrying him over the threshold. Or, that she finally got her man, although he doesn't seem upset about it, really. What's kind of interesting about it is that she's actually strong enough to pick him up. Now she's like him in that she doesn't have real super powers? She has a super-voice. So she's got the Cupid's arrow in her butt...oh, now I see, I didn't catch that he's got the leash to Cupid's arrow in his hand. Implying that he's actually the one who hit her with it and reeled her in. So there's kind of an implication there that maybe he's the one who shot her with the arrow of love. And they're actually standing on top of the wedding cake, it looks like.

I find this probably the least offensive of all the images. It's obviously trying to make some kind of statement about Green Lantern's masculinity. Arrow. Sorry. [Laughter.] Green Arrow's masculinity, or her femininity. Unless it's suggesting that the desperate Black Canary finally managed to catch her man, but this doesn't seem to be the case, since he's the one who shot her. I guess her butt showing is probably what people are somewhat concerned about, but that seems kind of tame compared to the rest.

[I then inform her that two covers were drawn/designed by women, and ask her to guess which ones. She picks the MJ statue and, upon additional reflection, the zombie cover. 0 for 2! I don't know if this is a moment of pride for Adam Hughes and Arthur Suydam, or a moment of shame for Amanda Conner and whatshername what did the Heroes for Hire cover.]

(I would like to add that I used Ask Cerebra extensively when writing this post. Thanks, Kevin Church.)

14 comments:

Pedro said...

Hey Dick,

Thanks for the link, but I'm a little confused. I'm a blogger who doesn't get the controversy behind the Captain America cover. Just like your wife, I didn't notice it was a black man on fire until other bloggers pointed out to me that I was supposed to be offended.

I still am not. I'm kind of really jazzed for a well written Falcon story by Ed Brubaker, considering the level of quality from this week's issue.

I did like your rules for dealing with those that disagree with you. I wish Tamora Pierce had listened to you.

Colin Wales said...

One of the things that's confused me about the Captain America cover controversy is, well, even if the cover is showing a lynching of the Falcon, it isn't as if they're implying it's a good thing, are they? There's no cover blurb going "IN THIS ISSUE: That uppity Falcon gets what's coming to him!"

It's a moment of peril; we'd expect people to pick up the comic to see how the Falcon gets out of trouble - whether or not it's a lynching.

(And if it is a lynching, we want the Falcon to not only escape but then kick the crap out of everyone taking part.)

Matt Brady said...

I like the stuff with your wife. I've done similar stuff with my wife, but nothing so detailed. I've actually thought about doing almost the exact same thing (but probably not recording the results, since I don't usually talk about these sorts of issues on my blog). I did show her the recently-solicited Flash cover, with the vagina attacking him, just to see if she noticed that. But she had no idea what I was talking about, and disagreed vehemently when I told her that people thought it looked like a vagina. Weird. I showed her some examples of women who thought it looked like that, including Lea Hernandez, who was certain of the fact due to illustrating sex ed manuals, and I guess she conceded that some people might see it that way, but she didn't. It surprised me. Maybe comics people are more apt to see genitalia.

Anonymous said...

Or more likely, Lea Hernandez complains about everything and seems to enjoy it.

DivaLea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DivaLea said...

Matt: One sex-ed curriculum. Not manual or manuals.
I didn't, as was extrapolated by wiseasses from my poorly-worded LJ post, draw a vagina with teeth. Rather, I know what a vagina and labia without teeth look like. I drew the non-toothy ones from photo reference.

I am apt to see genitalia when they're present. There was a time when I would bump over that imagery. Not because I didn't see it, but because I couldn't parse how anyone would be that damn obvious and get away with it.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a monster is a vagina.

I've moved on to having monkey toys humping Flash, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I love that your wife's initial response is [laughter]. Probably the most healthy response i've read yet.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Lea, which suggestions do you disagree with? Surely not "talk about stuff other than covers." I'm curious what (hypothetical) value you see in activities like debating trolls.

As to why she picked out the Marvel Zombies cover, she said, "I was just guessing to humor you." So there you go. I was thinking about showing her the vagina dentata Flash cover, but I should probably give her a break from this stuff. And yeah, she really did laugh whenever I showed her a new cover, perhaps as a nervous reaction while she was considering the wisdom of marrying someone who can explain the concept of Marvel Zombies.

DivaLea said...

D'oh!
I got so focused on the ones I didn't like (bingo, linking to covers, talking about covers), that I blanked all the good ones. (Not feeding trolls, moderating comments.)
My very bad. I shouldn't write comments when I'm underslept for the second night in a row.

I apologize, and I've deleted the dumb post.

Trying again:
I agree much with your points about not feeding trolls, moderating comments (I am a BIG believer in moderating comments.)
I don't agree that there's no currency in, well, covering the covers.
Do I agree with all of the criticisms of recent covers? Oh hell no. But I do understand why offense is taken where I have none.
I also understand what it's like to be bothered by something, and be put down for saying so.

And, since it's in a now-deleted post, I'll say again I enjoyed the spousal survey.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Well, perhaps I should have made myself clearer. I wasn't suggesting that people should silence themselves when they were personally offended (in fact, I was disagreeing with Heidi's contention that some battles aren't worth fighting; I think people should say whatever they're feeling).

My point was more that bloggers shouldn't feel obligated to speak out on the controversy de la semaine if they didn't have anything to add. There are enough meta/link blogs covering these issues to ensure that everyone will hear all about them.

Also, I have no problem with discussing covers, and I understand why people focus on them. Perhaps they deserve a disproportionate share of attention, but lately it seems like they're getting all the attention.

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